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Offer by Cab Firm Owner Ends Passenger's Claim His Watch Was Taken for a Ride

June 16, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

The only thing everyone agrees on is that Robert Bittourna didn't have the fare.

Bittourna, 69, says the cabbie who drove him home from a recent night on the town absconded with his new $400 Citizens watch as "collateral" for what he owed, which was under $10.

The cab driver denies that anything of the kind occurred, saying he was stiffed for the fare.

And investigators at several agencies are shaking their heads trying to decide what -- if anything -- to do.

At least that's until Hossein Nabati, owner of Tustin's White and Yellow Cab Co., decided to pay the man off.

"I like to make the customer happy even if he's wrong," Nabati said. "We'll pay him back. I don't believe what he's saying, but if he wants to get a watch out of this deal, no problem."

Bittourna insists, however, that he's not trying to con a few hundred dollars out of a cab company. He says that on June 4, after spending the evening at a Tustin restaurant with friends, he called the company for a ride back to his Newport Beach home. The fare turned out to be $24; Bittourna had $16.

He says he couldn't find his checkbook or credit card inside the house. It was then, he says, that the cabbie demanded the silver and gold watch -- a Christmas gift from his wife -- as collateral until a check could be sent.

"It seemed like he was threatening," said Bittourna. So he traded his watch for a paper bearing the driver's address and phone number. "I was in fear."

The driver -- Hassan Nazmul, 38, of Tustin -- tells a different story. Bittourna, he says, seemed irritated and slightly confused.

He promised to send a check, but never did. And at no time, Nazmul insists, did the subject of his watch come up. "Maybe he's got me mixed up with somebody else," Nazmul said. Bittourna and his wife, Jean, say they spent the next week trying to contact the driver. They also contacted the cab company about 15 times. And when that failed to produce the missing timepiece, they called police and, finally, the Orange County Taxi Administration Program, which regulates cabs in the county.

Assuming the watch changed hands, said Sgt. David Szkaredek, a spokesman for the Newport Beach Police Department, "it is technically an extension of credit," hence outside law enforcement's purview.

Ted Nguyen, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which oversees the taxi program, said that beyond screening potential drivers for criminal backgrounds, the authority doesn't get involved in customer complaints.

"If there are customer-relations issues," he said, "it's really between the driver and the cab company."

Indeed, only company owner Nabati -- after being told of the situation -- decided to step up to the plate. "I guess I'm going to have to pay for his good time," he said of Bittourna's night on the town.

Nabati's advice: "Next time he goes out, he should leave the watch at home."

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